God is a Disembodied Mouth
My 68-year-old friend Martin told me we need to keep, at the very least, six good people in our lives. In case you die, he’d explained. Your pallbearers. He also told me things like Dick doesn’t fill the hole in your soul and Run on syrup-time, live sweet and slow.
We’d met at the East Village record store he owned. I was fresh out of a three-month-long amphetamine fugue where I didn’t leave my room, convinced anonymous voyeurs were watching my every gesture through secret cameras they’d planted in my eyes. They watched my reflection graze the trenches of skin between its ribs. Doctors called it psychosis, but I called it channeling. A channeling of ghosts or angels or God himself that these voyeurs bore witness to. They watched me transcribe the messages I was channeled on Post-It notes. Then they watched me transcribe them on my walls when I ran out of Post-It notes.
Martin’s store had low ceilings and fluorescent lights that gave my skin a green, translucent hue. I never made a purchase. I didn’t even own a record player. I did browse the aisles, writing down album titles to torrent, knowing I lacked the energy to see it through.
Martin didn’t care. He didn’t pay attention to shoppers, in general. Rather, he lounged behind the counter, face buried in Samuel Delany paperbacks. He was a boney, old man always donning dress-shirts that looked expensive, despite their wrinkles and crooked buttons. A faded tattoo on his forearm read: Mad Intoxication. It looked decades older than me, hardly legible against his skin. Sometimes, when his attention flickered, he’d stare into the pale lights. I felt a connection to him before we’d even said hello, certain he was the one who’d reveal the thing I didn’t know I was searching for.
After weeks of loitering, I asked for a job application and returned it with strands of my hair glued around the borders and blood from a finger prick smeared through my D.O.B. and SSN. In lieu of answering What are your strengths? Weaknesses? Prior experiences? I filled out the form with a poem in red crayon then doused it in frankincense and tuberose.
It intrigued Martin enough to give me a call. He said there was no way in hell he’d ever hire me, but had framed my application and hung it in the store by the used DVDs. He invited me to dinner that night.
At a French brasserie on the West Side, Martin ordered steak frites and a side salad with, what he referred to as, a “Kareem-Abdul Jabbar handful-sized side” of mesclun. We hit it off over escargot, petit pois, and our shared love of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Martin said, “No one in the history of television has ever come close to matching Bryant’s style and grace.” I agreed, “Bryant is the last great journalist.”
Martin said he collected art, but exclusively portraits of athletes because athletes had objective, undeniable talent, unlike artists.
The conversation turned to our dead loved ones. He ran the estate of his late husband, the artist Gerald Nash. Martin spoke fondly of his little Cherbito, even amorously sighing in short fluttered breaths. He said that Gerald’s paintings were highly coveted, that the market for his work shot up once everyone learned he was sick, and now Martin was being courted and entertained by gallerists for the remains of Gerald’s artists’ rights. There is a term for this, Martin said: The Death Effect.
We decided to confess to each other the cruel things that we had done. He said that once, in a fight with Gerald, he told the little Cherbito that he only had the recognition he did by process of elimination, for Gerald’s more talented, more deserving contemporaries had died of AIDS. Though Martin had meant what he said, he regrets having said it.
I told him how my friend Char OD’ed from some bunk-pressed pills that I gave her, maybe, or warned her not to take—I can’t recall which. Either way, how was I supposed to know she had been clean for weeks, that her tolerance had dipped. Martin burst into laughter then I did too. Finally set free from having to stomach the performative-sympathy I was usually met with.
After espresso, I tagged along to some kind of support group he regularly attended. The woman I sat next to kicked off the discussion with an endearing anecdote about getting fisted, then proceeded to pull out a hunk of cheddar cheese and, I swear to God, chomped it like an apple. Martin raised his hand and shared that his vision was going. “I believe it to be karmic punishment for the vanity of my youth,” he said. Whatever the ostensible purpose of the meeting, it became free-for-all trauma bonding. Maybe that was the purpose.
Martin’s eyesight was gone by spring. “I’m blind as hell,” he phoned. “Can’t see shit!”
When people go blind, he explained, it happens subtly, eerily. Their vision doesn’t flicker on and off like a weak lightbulb. It doesn’t fade to black. Instead their peripherals degrade into a narrow vignette until they bump into walls and tables that have always been in the same place, eventually discovering a world that has closed in on itself.
He took me to a party at this house In New Canaan whose invitation read: Equinox Bacchanal. A shuttle picked me up from the bus station and dropped me off at the residence where Martin stood outside waiting for me. He indeed, looked blind as hell, holding a cane and wearing a pair of Wayfarers. I hooked my arm through his to guide him inside.
The house was built in the modern architectural style that seemed to talk down to me—the formulaic way it baited the eye, dragged it along the clean symmetrical lines, up and sideways the right angles of furniture, and around artworks that each executed its subject in perfect rule-of-thirds. I resented this. Being manipulated to examine, being instructed exactly where to gawk.
We made our way to the backyard and I parked us on Adirondack chairs. He asked who was there, to tell him what I saw. The scene was bourgeois but decrepit. I narrated the scene as I thought he’d imagine it. I said people of all art world breeds were there: punk blueprints, performance artists in velcro sandals, a painter turned recovery center owner, leather-skinned collectors visiting from Miami, curators with asymmetrical haircuts, viking-build bartenders and an agile twinky waiters, all of whom appeared to be hired from a headshot. They carried trays of coupes. Chilled drinks garnished with white flowers. “Yuzu spritz?” They offered. And there were many young people at the party. They were dancing, they were swimming in the pool, they were sitting on the lip of the pool, they were splashing their legs in the pool. They were sinewy like Iggy Pop, like the subjects of Schiele sketches. They wore pearls, big pearls, big unpolished pearls, both men and women wearing pearls. Martin listened to the stories and mythologies I ascribed to the guests with intrigue. He cracked a wide smile. His teeth were big and flat and round at the bottoms; tiny islands separated by small gaps; one of them was gold.
For a moment, I wondered how these guests perceived me here with Martin? Did they think I was a freeloader, a hanger-on, a lost puppy exhibiting some kind of Father-Figure transference? True, I spent more time with Martin than I did friends fresh out of undergrad like me. But I liked Martin because Martin was just down. Down as fuck. Down to drink, down to smoke, down to steal. He made an unsubtle example of this when a waitress came by with lotus root hors d'oeuvres and Martin took the entire tray off her hands.
Meanwhile, I fetched us flutes, a bottle of champagne, and cognac and found Martin around the back of the house, away from the party. How he made his way over there holding that tray, let alone all hors d'oeuvres intact, I have no idea.
We straddled a brick ledge, tray of food and bottles between us. I got so drunk that the proceeding moments stopped flowing into one another, and instead occurred as a series of disparate, unrelated segments. I mixed French 77’s. Martin sucked lotus root tang off his thumb. The party’s music transitioned from smooth jazz to Italo disco. A bobcat creeped around the brush with a limp hare dangling from its mouth. Martin sparked a spliff that I’d placed between his lips. We passed it back and forth and I got crossfaded as hell, so cross-faded I asked him, “Is being blind hard?” Realizing how dumb thequestion was. I clarified, “I mean, are you sad?” Worse.
“I’ve seen enough. Wouldn’t go back to seeing, knowing what I know now,” he said. “No one sees anything better than they see absence.”
I made some kind of acknowledging noise, maybe a “huh” or a “whoa,” finishing the joint and flicking it into the brush.
He continued “It’s true what they say. My other senses are heightened.”
“Like supersonic hearing and smell?”
“Well that makes me sound like a damn dog,” he said. “ It’s not animalistic, not even superhuman. It’s spiritual. It’s acute spiritual perception.”
I liked those words. I wanted to feel those words coming out of my own mouth: Acute spiritual perception.
“Everyone has grief in their voice,” Martin said. “Especially when they speak about who or what they love, I can hear that they’re already mourning things they haven’t yet lost.”
I sat quietly for a moment pondering what that could possibly mean.
Martin raised his wrist to check the time on his watch. Seeing him sigh and place his hand back into his lap made my heart feel like a bruise under the pressure of a thumb.
“A Cartier Tank with no practical use,” he sighed.
“Yeah, exactly. You should give it to me.”
And we laughed and laughed and laughed and I called him a little shit and he said no you’re a little shit and we laughed harder.
Once we caught our breaths he said, “I feel God right now.”
“Oh?” I asked. “What does God feel like?”
“A constant vibration, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes reverberating at the same frequency as something in me. That’s how I know he’s there.”
“Wrong,” I said. “I’ve seen God and that’s not God. When I was young, I saw Him every time I looked out the window. God was a Big Red Mouth flying through the sky.”
Martin laughed, accidentally inhaling Cognac and cleared his throat.His only follow-up question was what God’s voice sounded like. I told him he sounded enthusiastic, eager, and raspy. He sounded like James Brown. He sounded like a crackling wick, crinkling cellophane, wind whistling through leaves, grass being ripped from the earth. Like butter, like a talk radio host, like rocks rolling down a quarry, like a spoon stirring tea in a porcelain cup, like a dagger thrusting through a sternum, like a whisper. He sounded like God Martin, I don’t fucking know. He sounded like God.
Alisha Wexler is a NY-based writer from Las Vegas. You can read her fiction in places like ExPat and X-R-A-Y, her non-fiction in Surface and The Observer, her tweets here, and her poetry only if you're her lover.